David Calling

The Preemptive Cringe

This week I happened to meet one of the panjandrums of the British Foreign Office, a man who has been at the center of issues involving the Middle East and Afghanistan. What he had to say was a fine example of the FO’s persistent institutional personality. The invasion of Iraq, this man held, had been a mistake, and he was against it. The campaign in Afghanistan is an even more dire mistake. George W. Bush, he believed, had greatly over-reacted to 9/11. The Taliban were disposed at first to throw al-Qaeda out of the country, and a subtler president could have served the national interest better and at less cost by manipulating an open split between the two groups. In his view, fighting has achieved nothing, and never will. The only course of action now is to strike a deal that gives the Taliban what they want. You cannot put down an insurgency with military measures, he concluded as though this was the last word, and the Communist insurgency in Malaya, for instance, had not been defeated.

Listening to this Foreign Office grandee, I couldn’t help being reminded of my old friend Professor J. B. Kelly, in his day the foremost authority on the Persian Gulf and who also coined the immortal phrase “the preemptive cringe” to describe the FO’s manner of operating. In a rather obscure but telling dispute, the Sultan of Oman had retained him as an adviser when Saudi Arabia seized the Omani oasis of Buraimi. The Saudis were completely in the wrong, but they were more important than the Omanis and therefore the Foreign Office was determined to let them have their way. Just a glance round the room was enough, John Kelly told me, to reveal officials whose careers had been devoted to internalizing all the bad things ambitious foreigners charged them with, and consequently devising how best to haul down the flag. They were so long accustomed to appease and surrender to strength and violence that they couldn’t imagine anything else.

To come to terms with the Taliban now would expose Afghans and Pakistanis to tyranny, with many of them becoming refugees or corpses. In his recent pronouncements, President Obama is similarly pressuring Israelis to come to terms with Fatah-Hamas who would make refugees or corpses of them. The preemptive cringe is turning into policy, and it’s deadly.


The Latest